It’s very hard to be grown up when we’re getting divorced. As parents, we’re expected to share nicely, act responsibly, be the bigger person, put the needs of our children at the centre of every decision. As angry, hurt, vulnerable human beings, that’s hard to achieve. We’ve gone from sharing resources to competing for assets.
First, there’s the finances. Divorce requires us to establish separate households. The more one parent gets, the less there is for the other. Running two households on the same resources as one costs more. So we both end up with less money than before.
Since we’re now living in separate households, we need to agree how much time our children will spend with each of us. Because children need us to support them, one of us usually needs to make a payment to the other, who has primary caring responsibilities. Now we both also have less time with our children than before.
All these things are decided via the same process. Intellectually we know that our children are not a marital asset. But it’s very easy for us both to start thinking of them as one more resource to be shared out in the zero-sum game of the ending of a marriage.
Time spent either with, or without, the children both become points of contention. Is time with the children a benefit or a cost? Are four fun-filled days a month more, or less, valuable than nagging them to get dressed and eat their breakfast every morning? If your ex-partner asks you to take the children for longer, are they ducking their responsibilities or giving you a gift? If you refuse, are you resisting your ex-partner’s manipulations or selfishly prioritising your own needs over your child?
It’s hard for us to separate access and money – especially when we both have less of both than we had before. The parent making the payments might think, “Why is the other person getting my money and my children? Why am I being pushed out of the family like this?” The parent caring for the children might think, “Why do I have less freedom and more responsibility and less money? Why am I doing all the hard work and they get to do the fun stuff at weekends?” The parent making the payments may reduce payments, or stop paying altogether. The parent caring for the children may restrict or withhold access to the children. These events may be in retaliation to each other and can come in either order.
Sometimes, one parent’s behaviour is so dangerous or violent that allowing them access to the children would be unsafe. Sometimes, one parent has abused the other. Should a person who has beaten, raped or mentally tortured another adult be allowed to spend unsupervised time with children? And what happens when the person accused of the abuse denies that it took place? Because all human systems are fallible, sometimes mistakes will be made. Parents who are not abusive will be denied access to their children. Parents who are abusive will be granted access.
I’ve been very careful in writing this not to assign gender, at any point. In practice, we all know how and where the dividing lines are drawn. When it comes to issues of residency, maintenance and access, we can draw the stereotypes (feckless wastrel Disney-parent versus bitter, money-grabbing control-freak) for ourselves. I still haven’t assigned a gender. But I bet you have.
That’s the stereotype. But that’s not how it has to be. There are thousands and thousands of couples who have made divorce work for them and their children. Some of us are divorced couples who co-parent in harmony. Some of us are re-married couples whose blended families are happy and successful. Some of us are single parents who are raising our children ably and well. These are the stories we should be telling. These are the examples we should be learning from. As a society, we need parents to get better at managing divorce.
That’s why the current high-profile battle between Mumsnet and Fathers 4 Justice is such a huge disappointment, and a wasted opportunity. In case you’ve missed it, Fathers 4 Justice are accusing Mumsnet of giving a platform to gender-based hate-speech, committed by women, against men. There are a number of theories about the motivation and timings for these accusations, which – since I have no evidence to either support or disprove them – I don’t intend to review here.
The point is, there was an opportunity here. There was a chance for two groups defined by their parenthood to talk to each other. We could have talked about our grievances, about how to manage divorce and separation better, about how to better draw the distinction between parents who have simply stopped loving each other, and parents who are actively dangerous to their ex-partners and their children. Instead, Fathers 4 Justice took out an advertisement accusing the Mumsnet community of promoting gender hatred against all men and boys as a group, and encouraging the boycotting of advertisers who promote on Mumsnet.
I am one two-millionth of the Mumsnet community, and I don’t speak on its behalf. I am even less qualified to speak for Fathers 4 Justice. But of one thing I am certain: mothers and fathers love their children, fiercely and without reservation, and even when they don’t love each other. This divisive and hateful campaign does nothing to help us work better together at protecting our children in the event of marital breakdown. Children are not a marital asset. They are the people we love the most. We all – men and women, mothers and fathers – need to get better at putting them first.
We could have done all of this. Instead, we’re trading insults. Shame on you, Fathers 4 Justice. Shame on you.
Thanks to the supermarkets’ insistence that we accessorise the milestones of our year with cards, bunting and awful injection-molded plastic stuff, we’ve all got used to the notion that particular festivals will be represented by particular colours. Christmas is red and green. Hallowe’en is black and orange. Easter is daffodil-yellow. Mother’s Day is pastel, like the Baby section of Clinton’s Cards.
I’d always thought of Valentine’s Day as crimson. But somewhere, somehow, some evil soulless monster of Tescopoly commercialism has started to turn Valentine’s Day a sickly shade of artificial pink.
This worries me.
There have always been a lot of things wrong with Valentine’s Day. It’s an entirely manufactured celebration; unlike the other great occasions of the year, it has no deep roots in the old agricultural rhythms of the agrarian calendar. It proposes just one mode of human happiness – straight, settled and in a traditional couple – and insidiously suggests that if we’re not in one of these paired-off hetero units, there must be something wrong with us. Since Valentine’s cards have been with us since at least the 1400s, Valentine’s Day was probably the original Hallmark Holiday.
But damn it, at least it used to actually be for adults.
Here’s the one thing I like about Valentine’s Day; it’s a celebration of carnality. Its’ traditional gifts and rituals – chocolates, roses, champagne, restaurant dinner, silky underwear, sex – are designed to appeal to the senses, not the intellect. It reminds us that we’re animals, and that being an animal is actually pretty awesome. If you subscribe to Eve Ensler’s provocative and compelling interpretation, even the love-heart – the iconic symbol of Valentine’s Day – actually represents an altogether more earthy body-part.
Or, that’s how it used to be. And, back when Valentines Day was a deep shade of crimson, I felt comfortable with my reading of it. But candy-cane pink? What’s that all about, then?
Pink, pink, pink, pink, pink. I look down Tesco’s Seasonal aisle, and that’s what I see. Champagne (pink, of course) in a pink shrink-wrapped bottle, looking like something you’d give a five-year-old at a Princess party. Pink flowers. Pink-sprinkled chocolate hearts in pink heart-shaped boxes. Pink teddy-bears holding up pink hearts, bearing the pink message, “I wuv u”. Pink balloons.
Balloons and teddy-bears! I mean, come on, are we six? My daughter would love this stuff. But my daughter would not send me a Valentine’s card.
Except that these days, she can, and quite possibly will. These days, our children are encouraged to make Valentine’s cards for their parents. Don’t get me wrong – I love it when my kids make stuff for me, I love it when they tell me they love me. But, on this one day of the year, this day that ostensibly celebrates adult relationships with other adults…no. Please, no. If you want a formal occasion for children to melt the hearts of their parents, we already have two; Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. Why take over Valentine’s Day as well?
“I wuv u”. What is wuv, anyway? It sounds so frail and limp, so vulnerable and transient. Wuv means fluff and fragility, a willful infantilisation of ourselves, a simpering pretense that we’re pure and sexless, motivated entirely by sweetness and one-sided devotion. What kind of emotion can flourish on a diet of emotional candy-floss? Wuv, I suspect, is not durable.
My husband and I have been together for over a decade. In that time he’s seen me pregnant, twice; he’s seen me give birth, twice – once naturally and once by C-section. He’s held my head and stroked my back while an anesthetist took a needle big enough to stick an elephant, and shoved it deep into my spine; while cradling our infant daughter, he has accidentally caught sight of my insides (apparently my abdomen, when cut open to allow access to my womb, looked “like lasagne”). Wuv would never have been able to withstand the shock of all that stretching and screaming and cursing and blood. Wuv would never have coped with my dreamy proposal of marriage to the anaesthetist. Wuv would have run, screaming, from the operating theatre and the delivery room.
But despite all of that, and despite all the intervening daily grind between then and now – stuff to do with nappy changes and bins and bad days at work and socks on the floor and floor-mopping and sleep deprivation – he’s still here, and we still love each other.
That’s not wuv. That’s love. Love is durable and tough. Love can be stretched out of shape from time to time. Love grows, shrinks, fades a little and is then unexpectedly renewed. Love can absorb the occasional moment of hatred. Love is not something you can express with a fluffy child’s toy.
A couple of years ago, I happened across a brand new occasion on our calendar. 14th March has now been designated Steak-and-Blow-Job Day. This is needed because, apparently, Valentine’s Day is now officially just for us women, and in return for obliging us with all that fluffy-bears-and-balloons shit, the men want to institute a day that’s about stuff that they like.
There are a million things to object to about Steak-and-BJ day (not everyone likes steak; not everyone likes blow-jobs; not everyone’s partner has a penis; That Image on the front page of the official site). But my biggest problem with it is what it says about Valentine’s Day. Somehow, the myth has grown up that, for some inexplicable reason, balloons and teddy-bears are what grown women like. Men like eating and sex. Women like being treated like an eight-year-old.
As far as I’m concerned, Valentine’s Day is steak-and-BJ day – or, at least, Nice-food-and-sexual-practice-of-your-mutual-choice Day. Surely I can’t be alone inthis? Isn’t it time we reclaimed it? We don’t need balloons and teddy-bears; we don’t even need red meat and oral sex (although personally speaking, that would be shiny). We just need our partners, and time to focus on each other.
Every week, one of our writers will be given five tracks – they could be unsigned, they could be international superstars. Any genre could be included, and the writer gets one week to give their verdict on each song in under 100 words. This week, Cassandra Parkin takes her turn. If you like what you hear, click on the band names to visit their website, and if you want your music to be included in the future, send an MP3, picture, short bio and link to email@example.com.
When you look at your “Most Played” list on your iPod and realise nineteen out of the twenty-five tracks are by the same artist, you know it’s time to expand your musical horizons. The Camel’s Hump kindly turned me loose on five new tracks from five artists I’ve never listened to before, and told me I was allowed to share my opinions with the world.
Jay James Picton – Heads vs Hearts [Part One – Battle Call]
Put me in charge of the stereo, and I’ll generally pick something heavy, rocky and piano-y, with vinyl hissing and doomy lyrics. This puts “Heads vs Hearts” – a heartbroken lament on the pain of loving a bad girl – right in my sweet-spot. Picton also made the video – a noir confection of battered protagonists, bad relationships, brunettes and cigarette smoke. While I could lose the massive instructional signage at the start, song + video = glorious wallowy misery. I liked this, although shinier, happier people might find it easy to mock. A big, bad, ANGSTY track for days when you’re feeling big, bad and very, very ANGST-RIDDEN.
The Civil Wars – Barton Hollow
I’m going to have to gush about this one just a little bit, because I absolutely adored it. It’s minimal, clean, pure and perfect, with spine-tingling harmonies and immaculate rhythms. Songs about sinners who can’t go home can be horribly maudlin, but Barton Hollow nails it – lyrical and heart-shaking, without tipping over into wallowy self-pity. If you feel you ought to take an interest in American Folk music, but can’t quite bring yourself to deal with the knee-slapping, jingly-jangly, Randy-the-cowpokeness of it all, buy the whole album and feel like a pioneer.
Ivan Campo – Diceman
This track feels like it might have fallen through a wormhole from the early nineteen-sixties. Specifically, it sounds like a lost Beatles song. The rhythm, the harmonies, the esoteric lyrics, and a singer who sounds almost ridiculously like Paul McCartney, all conspire to create this illusion. Unfortunately, this doesn’t make it a lost masterpiece; it’s more like something the boys wrote, then discarded because it wasn’t quite good enough for Please Please Me. There’s nothing wrong with this song. I just can’t get past how much it sounds like a pastiche of a masterpiece, rather than something new in its own right.
The Lights – Mostly Water
Mostly Water is sung by a pretty girl with a passable voice, a photofit American accent and a competent backing band, and there’s some guitar and some rhythm and some words, and no – I simply have to say it – this song is the utter personification of boring, British niceness. If you’re looking for bland music for your Financial Services advert, this song is for you!
Damn it, now I feel mean. Look, I have the same problem with Katie Melua, okay? If you like Katie, you’ll like this. That’s a lot of people. Just – you know – not me.
Jake Morley – Feet Don’t Fail Me Now
I feel like the meanest person on earth for not liking Mostly Water, so I’m very pleased to be finishing with Morley’s lovely anthem Feet Don’t Fail Me Now. With its feel-good blend of cheerful chords, uplifting chorus, youthful charm and poor-but-hopeful sensibility, Morley may well benefit from the mad rush to find artists with a strong musical resemblance to Ed Sheeran. Quite right too. His song is sweet and cheering and likeable, and I wish him all the best. However, I bet his mum wishes he’d washed his feet before they filmed the video.
Situation A: One night, a man and a woman meet at a party and have some drinks together. She’s dressed in hot-pants and a sparkly top. They’re at the party for a while and they get on well. They like each other; sex may, at least, be on the agenda. Other couples around them are clearly about to hook up. An hour after they part, the man accidentally wanders into the host’s bedroom and finds the woman lying on the bed. She is clearly unconscious with drink. He later claims he innocently presumed it was okay to go ahead and have sex with her.
Situation B: One night, a man and a woman meet in a hotel bar and have some drinks together. She’s dressed in a smart suit and low heels. They’re in the bar for a while and they get on well. They like each other; sex may, at least, be on the agenda. Other couples around them are clearly about to hook up. An hour after they part, the man idly tries the handle of the connecting door between their rooms and discovers it has accidentally been left unlocked. In the next room, the woman is lying on the bed. She is clearly fast asleep. He later claims he innocently presumed it was okay to go ahead and have sex with her.
Here’s another example. Somewhere in London, two women go to two parties. Woman A is dressed in a thigh-skimming mini-dress. Woman B is wearing a knee-length skirt and long-sleeved blouse. Woman A gets blind drunk and is escorted home by a male friend. Woman B suffers from narcolepsy and is escorted home by a male friend. On arriving home, both fall unconscious. Both are raped by the men who brought them home. Whose rape provokes the most outrage?
However much we don’t want to, we see the difference. We hate and despise this difference, and when Ken Clark refers to “degrees of rape”, we’re rightly outraged. Nonetheless, the difference is there. But it’s not about degrees of consent, or degrees of rape, or even degrees of confusion. The terrible truth is that, when a woman is drunk and in a mini-skirt, the man knows he has society’s permission to rape her.
Very early on, we learn the rules of nakedness, display and sexual contact. Context matters. If it didn’t, acts of attempted rape would happen most often on beaches and in swimming-pools, and Beauty Pageants would need to take place behind closed doors. In this sense, rapists are just like anyone else. And, just like consensual sex, society tells us when and how rape can take place. Like most social rules, the rules of rape are irrational, but – just as we generally don’t wear our underwear to the beach – we abide by them, and we expect rapists to abide by them too. As a bald statement, this fact is appalling; but on a basic level, we know it’s true.
This is why we tell our daughters (but not our sons) that they “can’t go out like that”. This is why reporters speak of drunk women (but not sleeping women) as “vulnerable”. Through these phrases, we reinforce the rules of rape.
“You can’t go out like that.” “Don’t make yourself vulnerable.” When we teach our daughters how they can evade rape, we also teach our sons that raping a drunk woman in a mini-skirt is socially sanctioned.
This is not to say that all men are rapists. I hope and believe that almost no men are. But all men learn the rules; and among them are those who enjoy forcing sex on an unwilling partner.
Here’s a statistic that shows how good rapists are at keeping the rules. I have a friend who is a police officer. She’s damn good at her job; she’s clever and diligent and careful, and her success rates are excellent. She’s worked on the force for seventeen years. In that time, she’s put away one rapist. This isn’t the only case she’s seen. It’s just the only case where the perpetrator was sent down.
Successful police officer. Seventeen years. One rapist. Am I still going to teach my daughter the rules? You’re damn right I am.
Is it possible to change the rules in our favour? I have an idea for this. It has its flaws, but I think it could work. In every alternate year, rape will become the default position for all sexual acts, between all men and woman, anywhere. In every alternate year, for a woman to prove rape, all she’ll have to prove will be sexual contact. If she says it’s rape and sex took place, then it’s rape. Job done.
The only permissible defence will be if the man can produce a standardised form, signed and dated by the woman, confirming consent for the sexual acts defined on the form, on that date, at that time and in that place.
This form won’t be infallible. If she says she was drunk when she signed, it’s invalid and he’s guilty of rape. If she says she was coerced or threatened into signing, it’s invalid and he’s guilty of rape. If she says her signature was forged, it’s invalid and he’s guilty of rape. If sex took place on a different date, at a different time (each form will allow a maximum of, say, one hour for the agreed acts to be completed) or in a different place to the ones specified on the form, it’s invalid and he’s guilty of rape. If she says he committed an act not agreed in advance, it’s invalid and he’s guilty of rape.
Please note: this form isn’t compulsory. It’s simply an optional tool to protect men against wilful rape accusations. You can still have sex without the form. Most couples in established relationships may not bother ever. Probably even most couples having sex for the first time won’t use it. But if men want to be safe – they’ll get that form signed, and get it signed properly.
And men themselves can do a lot to avoid the risks. For example: don’t have sex with women you’ve only just met – you can’t spot a false-accuser by looking. Don’t have sex when you’re drunk – you’re more likely to lose the form, or forget which acts she consented to. If possible, get your form signed in public, and in front of a good friend. That way you’ll have a witness. You might want to carry a tape-recorder to collect proof that she didn’t tell you “no” at any point during the act.
This system will lead to some miscarriages of justice, and I’m very sad about that. Some innocent men with no bad intentions will have their lives destroyed by women who, for some sick reason of their own, abuse the power they’ve been given by society. That will be terrible, and I mean that sincerely. I’ll pray it never happens to my son. If you organise a march to protest about it, I might even go on it.
But you know what? I’ll also know, in my secret shameful heart, that l have the power. I’m a good person, so I won’t abuse it. But I’ll have it.
Okay, even I can see this completely fucking ridiculous. But you know what? At least it’s equally fucking ridiculous. At least this way, everyone gets to experience both sides of the equation. At least this way, everyone gets an equal amount of time in power, and time in fear. And maybe when we’ve all experienced the other side of the equation, we’ll find some way of living together that lets us all get disgustingly drunk in clothes that don’t suit us, without the Rape spectre hanging over us.